Lahu Village: Baan Bala

Blog Post #16 is written by Kelley Dilliard, Junior Sociology/Pre-Med Major from Westmont College.


During the trek from the Karen village to the Lahu village we stopped halfway, in Chiang Mai, for lunch. The drive was long but suay maak (very beautiful). The village we were in first, the Karen village, was in an area that was full of pine trees and looked more like a forest in the mountains of Washington than of a jungle in Thailand. The village we are now staying in, the Lahu village, is located in the foothills along a river. It is a mixture of jungle and forest which is a strange combination. It is strange to see large leafed banana trees along side trees similar to pine or oak trees. The area is wonderful but sadly the style of farming they have adopted is destroying it. The hills are now black due to the burning that they do after every harvest. They mostly grow feed corn here on the sides of the hills because there is no flat land for them to grow rice. Because the rains wash away the top soil every year they have to add fertilizer. They use three pounds of fertilizer for every one pound of corn. This type of farming causes a multitude of issues:

  1. The chemicals in the fertilizer are washed into the river during the rainy season
  2. The soil is now hard and low on nutrients
  3. They are only growing one crop which they can make a lot of money on but they do not see that it is ruining the environment and that there are better options with multicrop farming.
  4. Health issues are also developing through the inhalation of the smoke during burning and the exposure to chemicals from the fertilizers and pesticides that they use without protection or knowledge of its effects.

There is a man here who has returned to his village with a vision and passion to change the way of farming in order to better his village but he has been met with views of disbelief and failure from his peers. Most think he is crazy and that he is foolish.  But many are coming to believe in him and follow him, including many of us!

There are so many children in this village and they are not shy at all. They will jump all over you at first sight. They have so much joy and love as well as an abundance of energy. They are so much fun to play with and to go swimming in the river with but if you let them, they can really wear you out!

Monday, April 2 and our first night in the village, was the killing of the pig. It is tradition that they kill a pig as a welcome and to use as part of our food for the time that we are here. It was sad to see but it was also quite impressive. The man was so precise but there was one small hiccup. After the second stab, the pig bolted and broke the rope that was acting as a tether and it ran down the road into the courtyard of a nearby house. It was a bit of an adrenaline rush to have a pig run in your direction. The killing was followed by the removing of the hair and cleaning. I must say that it has been delicious.

After dinner, we were given off to Lahu host families and lugged our bags to our temporary homes. I am living with Amanda (from Westmont College) and Kate (from Messiah College) in the home of an older couple that speaks no English and a very limited amount of Thai. It has been a learning experience to speak with someone when both of us are speaking a language that is not our first language. It has been a challenge but, with the help of hand signals and broken sentences, we have communicated effectively so far. We are sleeping on a mattress that is on the floor in the main family room while the couple sleeps in a separate room.

There are also some different animals here. I have not seen any spiders so far like we saw in the Karen village, knock on wood, but there are large lizards that move very fast and make some funny noises. They croak a little and then make a sound that sounds like f*** you and it catches us off guard every time. There is one that lives outside our bedroom and it is pretty funny to wake up to.

On Tuesday we went swimming in the nearby river with some of the children. Since they have limited clothing, they all go swimming naked and are all risk takers. They were jumping off rocks left and right into the shallow waters of the river. It was a little scary at first but then I realized that they probably do this all the time. We were also able to see how they make the purses here. I have noticed that all of the hill tribes we have seen so far do weaving to make purses, scarfs, and clothing. The unique thing is that each tribe has a different style and pattern. The Karen bags are woven as one piece with a thick strap. The Lahu bags have quilting work on them and are comprised of multiple pieces. The Akha bags are similar to the Lahu bags but have more sown designs rather than quilting and they have coins on the bags. All of the work is incredible and beautiful.

The other thing that we have had to do in the villages is a bucket shower. There is a room, usually by the toilet, that has a large bucket of water and a smaller bucket that is used to pour the water over yourself for the shower. Usually the water is cold but it is refreshing. The shower that is at my host families house in this village is a little more complicated. Since most people here are short, the walls of the shower are short as well which means that I can see over them. There are also designs in the wall that are about chest level which means I have to kneel on my shoes while taking the bucket shower so that I am not exposing myself to the people walking past. The other option would be to take a shower in the river which is a fun option but sometimes you come out dirtier because of all the mud on the banks and the dirt in the water.

Wednesday we had the opportunity to plant banana trees in Vitoon’s field. He is the farmer that I talked about at the beginning of this post.

Banana trees are great for a few reasons:

  1. They are free. Banana trees sprout new plants naturally right next to the first one so all you have to do is cut down the shaft and dig up the bottom third of the tree and replant it somewhere else. If you don’t do this then there wont be enough nutrients for all the plants to live so they will begin to die or just wont produce fruit.
  2. They can be planted on the hills and will protect against erosion from the rain.
  3. The fruit can be sold for profit.
  4. The banana trees provide shade for other plants such as coffee.
  5. They do not need to be watered. The farmers just wait for the rain.

We were able to plant about 90 trees in his field so once those grow (they grow and produce fruit within a year) then he will be able to plant coffee and tea plants in that area. We also had to opportunity to go fishing with some of the people of the village. The men walk down the river with nets while the women have bamboo baskets and will try to catch fish or small shrimp along the shoreline. It was a lot of fun to watch as well as float down the river after them.

Another thing that has been interesting, mainly during our worship sessions, is that there are three language being spoken. For example, one person might be sharing and be speaking in English. The translator is able to speak English, Thai, and Lahu but sometimes he does not understand what was said in English so a third person will explain it to him in Thai and then he will share that in Lahu to the villagers that are present. It is very odd but incredible at the same time.

On Thursday, a few of us went to a wedding while others trekked through the mountains surrounding the village. The wedding was similar to the Karen wedding we say but it was between a Lahu man and a Hmong woman. They had the Mong ceremony the day before and were having the Lahu ceremony while we were there. They were a really sweet couple.

Friday brought a tour of the village and the different professions as well as some more banana tree planting. This time we crossed a river and had to carry the banana tree roots up the side of a steep hill in order to plant them on the slope to protect against erosion. Although it was somewhat tricky, it was a lot of fun. Afterward, we went for a swim in the river to clean off the mud that was caked on our arms and legs.

Saturday was an eventful day, just like all the others. We took a trip to the village cemetery and realized that all the graves are above ground. The caskets are entombed in a concrete case and they all face the east. Almost all of the days we have been here we have been able to interview someone. The first person was Vitoon and we were able to here about his dream. The second person was his friend, Phii Chay, who also shares in Vitoon’s vision of agriculture and the creation of a school in the village. The last group was Vitoon’s parents, sister, and grandmother. Everyone has incredible stories to share and are a great inspiration to me. Vitoon’s father recently returned from Taiwan, where he worked for 18 years in a factory to provide for his family and to provide for a great education for his children. He would come back once every two years to stay for about four months and then would go back to work. He said it was very difficult but he was able to put his children through college and is very proud of them.

A few of us also planted more banana trees. The ground was extremely muddy so we were sliding everywhere and were covered with mud by the end but it was so worth it. In total we have planted about 240 banana trees since coming to the village. Our goal is to reach 500 before we leave in a week. [Update: We did it!]  Every time that we plant banana trees, it will rain that night. It has not rain at all since we have been here except for the three days that we have planted. It is great because that will allow the trees to grow faster. It is definitely a gift from God.

Sunday. It is very strange that it is Easter. There was a lot of talk about how Easter is spent with family and although I was with new friends and a host family, I was not home which was a little sad. There were a few services throughout the day for the different age groups and the messages were good. A few people from our group also helped to distribute reading glasses for the older people of the village and a village nearby. It will allow them to increase productivity on their weaving by seeing the stitches more easily and will then allow them to earn more money and have a better quality of life.

I also made jam with David and a few others. There is a mulberry tree here that we picked berries from, took the stems off, and boiled them with sugar. It turned out great. It was an interesting experience because the lighting in the kitchen was poor so we had to use a flashlight and there was a growing crowd of curious villagers. It turned out to be more important than we thought. Vitoon was so excited about our jam because the people in the village didn’t really like the mulberry trees. They considered it to be child’s fruit and didn’t use them in any other way. Now he wants us to teach them how to make the jam and they may even plant more of those trees. The berries and products made from those berries can earn a lot of money in the city markets. It can now become a new form of income for them.

We went to a orphanage in a nearby Chinese village on Monday. We sang with them and did face painting as well as gave them some basic school supplies. The children were adorable and extremely welcoming. They also gave all of us a handmade coin purse which were all beautiful and very generous of them. I also made more jam with David and friends but we also tried to fry it with dough we made. We made something similar to turnovers and they were delicious.

Overall, the village has been a great experience and I have really learned a lot.  I have loved getting to know the villagers and being able to experience life with them.